Forest Service says it’s acting on Wallow Fire recovery ahead of legislation

Forest Service says it’s acting on Wallow Fire recovery ahead of legislation

A Greer Fire District firefighter assesses damage from the Wallow Fire in this June 8 photo from Butler Canyon. (Photo by Kari Greer/U.S. Forest Service)

The U.S. Forest Service told a Senate panel Wednesday that work has already begun on recovery of forestland burned by the Wallow Fire, ahead of a bill that would require that action.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told the Senate Public Lands and Forests Subcommittee that his agency “understands and appreciates” the task ahead of it and needs any legislation to be flexible enough that the service can address high-risk areas as needed.

He said the service supports the Wallow Fire Recovery and Monitoring Act’s objective, but added his agency’s efforts will not be put on hold.

“The legislation tracks what the service is currently doing very well,” Tidwell said. “But we’re not going to wait for it.”

Tidwell testified that a rapid-assessment team is almost done with a report on how much salvageable wood is in the burn area, a key component of the bill introduced by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. The team will likely finish the report even faster than the Aug. 22 deadline called for in the bill, Tidwell said.

The service is conducting ongoing Burned Area Emergency Response work as part of a comprehensive Wallow Fire recovery plan the rapid-assessment team is developing.

Crews are removing dead, standing trees along about 245 miles of roads. The service projects more than 160,000 tons of wood will be removed by the time the work is done, and another 39 miles of power-line corridors and 350 miles of road are planned to be cleared after that.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., testifies in favor of the Wallow Fire Recovery and Monitoring Act to a Senate committee Wednesday. (Photo by Matthew Trotter)

While Kyl told the committee recovery is “a huge and immediate problem right now,” Tidwell said there is no need to rush into timber-removal operations.

“We have about two years to get these trees harvested so they’re usable as saw timber,” he said.

One part of Kyl’s bill the service is interested in is a provision that would let the Agriculture Department keep funds from timber removal projects and use them for forest restoration treatments. Tidwell said such funds currently go to the Treasury.

The service is also working to prevent soil erosion within the burn area by seeding and mulching. Seeds have been spread over nearly half of the planned 80,000 acres, and work to put down straw mulch on 25,000 acres is about 75 percent complete.

The Wallow Fire is the largest wildfire in Arizona history, burning about 535,000 acres in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, along with another 15,000 acres in western New Mexico. More than 4,700 firefighters battled the blaze, which began on May 29 and was not 100 percent contained until July 8. The cause of fire is still under investigation.

Kyl and the committee members took a few minutes during the hearing to praise the service’s efforts to remove dead or dying trees before the wildfire, saying the fire would have been much worse with the extra fuel.

“This was a fire burning as intense as any we’ve ever seen,” said Tidwell.